The Electric Power Research Institute said Tuesday it will work with General Motors Corp. and 34 utilities to help popularize plug-in hybrid electric cars across the United States.

The new research program will try to make it convenient for plug-in hybrid owners to charge their cars quickly. 

The strain on the aging power grid, along with a lack of charging stations, present major challenges for the industry. The fact that it takes four to six hours to charge most plug-in hybrid batteries using regular electrical outlets also makes plug-in hybrids less attractive.

Perhaps the biggest reason plug-in hybrids aren’t mainstream yet is that no major automakers are selling them. That’s set to change, as several – including GM, Toyota and Volkswagen -- plan to roll out plug-in hybrids by 2010 (see Chevy Volt Cleared for 2010 Production and Automakers Vie for Green Cred).

“Obviously, time is short. This is about a very diverse group of utilities working with the auto industry to make sure that when the cars come out, the cars and the grids will work well together,” said Mark Duvall, program manager for electric transportation at EPRI.

EPRI, whose members produce and deliver 90 percent of the electricity in the United States, unveiled the new program with GM at the Plug-In 2008 conference in San Jose, Calif. The three-day conference, which starts Tuesday, will feature panels on technologies, policies and market research for the plug-in hybrid community. 

EPRI in March announced a partnership with Ford Motor to develop technologies to ready the electric grid for plug-in hybrids. EPRI is working with utilities in New York and New Jersey to test Ford’s prototype plug-in hybrid, the Escape. Ford also is working with Southern California Edison to test the hybrids.

Duvall said the cost of the GM partnership hasn’t been determined. The cost of the Ford program is in “tens of millions,” which would come from public and private funding.

Unlike traditional gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrids can recharge their batteries at standard electrical outlets and can get more than 100 miles per gallon by replacing some fuel with electricity.

Some companies, such as A123Systems’ Hymotion, have begun selling kits – including extra batteries and a plug – to convert Prius cars into plug-in hybrids (see Toyota Dealers Sold on Hymotion Plug-In Hybrids).

The Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison, Duke Energy and the New York Power Authority are among the utilities that have signed up for the GM alliance.

Electric utilities have expressed concern that plug-in hybrids could strain the grid, especially during times of peak electricity demand.

Plug-in hybrid advocates have contended that most consumers would only charge their cars at night, when energy demand and electricity rates are lower (see Director: ‘Technology Can Solve Climate Change and U.S. Could Plug in Most Cars). But utilities aren’t likely to take them at their word.

Duke Energy, which serves several states on the East Coast and in the Midwest, has worked with GridPoint in Arlington, Va., to test the startup's “smart-charging” software. The software would prevent a plug-in hybrid from charging during the day and allow it to charge instead in the evening, when demand is lower (see Laying the Grid Groundwork for Plug-In Hybrids).

EPRI researchers will explore how new energy-efficiency technologies being promoted and deployed by the utilities could benefit consumers with plug-in hybrids. The program also will look at policies and public education campaigns for promoting the cars.

For example, the metering hardware and software for consumers to manage their everyday energy use and cost could also enable them to figure out when to charge their cars. Car owners also may want software that allows them to set their charging preferences before they go to bed.

“It’s going to be important for me as a customer that it’s automatic,” Duvall said. “We want people to start buying cars they can plug in with a minimum change to their behavior.”

The results from the research program will help carmakers and the utilities to deal with the arrival of all-electric cars in the future. Those cars will require more electrical power and possibly more frequent charging, depending on each car owner’s driving habit.

Some carmakers are skipping the plug-in hybrid market and spending its resources on developing all-electric cars instead. Tesla Motors, a 4-year-old carmaker in San Carlos, Calif., decided against making a plug-in hybrid version of its $60,000 Model S, a four-door sedan that is scheduled for market launch in late 2010 (see Tesla: We Will Build Electric Sedans in California).

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Tesla Chairman Elon Musk said the company considered the plug-in hybrid option and concluded that “it would not be a very good car.”

“You are forced to compromise," Musk told Newsweek. Tesla plans to roll out a third electric car model, which would cost $30,000, within four years (see Tesla Hires Chrysler Vet).

"Because you need both a gasoline-powered engine and a big battery, neither can be very good, and the engine will be a weak engine. It’s just not where the future lies.”